Preparing to File Your Case
Almost all Family Law cases in Washington are filed and completed on mandatory standard court forms. These forms are available for free on-line through the state court web site and some legal aid sites. All Superior Court Clerk’s Offices also sell packages of forms, as do some other legal service programs. The advantage to buying forms from the court is that most courts have extra forms specific to that court, or special rules about paperwork that you may not know about through the general state court web site. It’s always a good idea to check with the county court clerk to find out about any special forms or rules.
The forms can be very confusing to fill out, and it’s a good idea to have a professional look over your paperwork before filing. Most Superior Courts have “Family Court Facilitators” who are trained to help self-represented people with the forms. The Facilitators can’t give legal advice, but they can make sure you have all the forms you’ll need and make sure that they are filled out completely and correctly. Most counties also have legal aid agencies where you can get assistance with the forms and paperwork.
What to Do If You Can’t Pay the Filing Fee
In almost all situations, initiating court action (filing the case) requires payment of a fee to the court, often amounting to one to two hundred dollars or more. However, courts are legally bound to provide access to the justice system for all people regardless of ability to pay a filing fee. In most courts, if you cannot afford the filing fee, you can submit a special request to the court to waive the filing fees. This request is referred to by its Latin name: “In Forma Paperis”, often referred to short-hand as an IFP petition, or as a simply as a Motion for Fee Waiver.
Some courts have standard IFP forms or other standard forms to request waiver of court fees. However, most courts will accept alternative types of IFP petitions. A standard IFP form is available on-line through WashingtonLawHelp.org, or on most county court web sites. There’s also information available through the links listed in the “Resources” section of Athena’s Guide.
Reducing the Emotional Costs
Dissolution can often get nasty and emotionally draining, but it doesn’t have to be. Many counties have services to help you resolve disagreements without a huge court battle. One of the best routes is to use a Dispute Resolution Center. Most DRCs have mediators who are specifically trained in family law and can help the parties come to an agreement about parenting plans and dividing up debts and assets.
Most Superior Courts will also schedule a settlement conference before the case is set for hearings. At a settlement conference, a judge serves as a mediator to try and come to an agreement between the parties. Negotiations discussed in a settlement conference are confidential, and the mediating judge cannot be the same judge as whoever hears the case in court.
Some private lawyers also practice what is called “Collaborative Law”. In a collaborative law case, all parties agree not to litigate the case, but to work through a different process to reach agreement. Only once the case is fully settled does it go before a judge to be finalized.